final logo red (RGB)


International Relations and Defence Committee

Corrected oral evidence: The Arctic

Wednesday 19 April 2023

10.35 am


Watch the meeting

Members present: Lord Ashton of Hyde (The Chair); Lord Anderson of Swansea; Lord Campbell of Pittenweem; Baroness Coussins; Baroness Morris of Bolton; Lord Robertson of Port Ellen; Lord Soames of Fletching; Lord Stirrup; Baroness Sugg; Lord Teverson; Lord Wood of Anfield.

Evidence Session No. 1              Heard in Public              Questions 1 - 18



I: Professor Klaus Dodds, Executive Dean and Professor of Geopolitics, Royal Holloway, University of London; Professor Richard Powell, Professor of Arctic Studies, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge; Henry Burgess, Head of the Natural Environment Research Council’s Arctic Office at British Antarctic Survey.



Examination of witnesses

Professor Klaus Dodds, Professor Richard Powell and Henry Burgess.

Q1                The Chair: Good morning. Thank you very much for coming. It is very nice to see you. Some of you have been here before in different guises and to different committees but have also been to this one specifically. Thank you very much for making the time.

I remind everyone that this is a public session. It is streamed live on the Parliament website. A transcript will be taken. You will get a copy of the transcript so that you can make any corrections that you feel are necessary. I remind members of the committee that if you have any interests that are pertinent to this inquiry, please declare them.

I have already mentioned the fact that we have a lot to cover and that you have promised on your life that you are going to be concise. Thank you very much. When you first answer a question, I should be very grateful if you could briefly introduce yourself before starting off.

Although we are not specifically talking about climate, because that has been covered by other committees in more detail and we are focusing on the security and economic aspects of what is happening in the Arctic, obviously you cannot get away from the fact that the climate is changing and that causes many of the other things that we are going to discuss. Would you give us a brief description of how the Arctic environment is changing and what the impact is, so that we all have a background to start with and a base to paint a picture of where it is?

The last thing is that if you have anything to add to the answers, do, but do not feel the need for all three of you to answer every question.

Henry Burgess: Thank you very much for the opportunity to be with you this morning. I am the head of a National Environment Research Council Arctic Office that is hosted by the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. Our job is to support UK-based Arctic researchers in all that they do, and to create new opportunities for research.

The pace of change in the Arctic—the depth and the speed of change—is truly unprecedented, and is creating dramatic effects within the Arctic region itself. Equally importantly, the Arctic is having an effect on the rest of the world. Surface air temperatures in the Arctic have gone up by at least twice. That is from the IPCC report in 2019.[1] Recent Arctic Council statistics suggest that that air temperature has gone up by three times the rate of the global average, and potentially more.[2] That is because of a process called Arctic amplification, which is really important in why the Arctic is changing so much more quickly than the rest of the world. It is because we are losing sea ice and snow. That means that the reflective ability of the ice and the snow—the albedo effect—is dramatically reduced. The region that should be venting heat from the world to space is, in effect, warming disproportionately because of Arctic amplification.

That process is set to continue dramatically. The amplification means that in certain parts of the Arctic the warming is incredibly dramatic. In Svalbard, for example, it has warmed four degrees over the last 50 years. That is the kind of warming that the world as a whole is on track for if we do not take steps to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is both literally and figuratively shining a light on the Arctic. The increased light, because of the reduced albedo effect, is warming the Arctic and creating all the effects that we are seeing across the changing climate.

I know you want me to keep the answers short, but perhaps I could pick out two or three examples of what that means. Summer sea ice is down by over 30% in the last 30 years. Almost more importantly, since 1979 over 90% of the old ice, the five-year-old ice, has gone. We are, under more or less all climate scenarios, going to see an ice-free Arctic in the summer by around 2040 or 2045. That does not mean there will be no sea ice at all in the summer, but it will be thin, fragile, covered by melt pools and not the kind of Arctic that we are used to seeing.

Greenland is losing 278 gigatonnes of ice per year, twice the annual loss of the previous decade. In September last year there was a late season warming period, and 36% of Greenland was melting at that time, even at the summit of Greenland, which is 10,500 feet. We have lost 2.5 million square kilometres of snow in recent decades. Again, that is because of surface temperature increases. Permafrost is a significant issue in the Arctic. There are 1,600 gigatonnes of carbon locked up in permafrost; more than twice the amount of carbon is locked up in permafrost than is in the atmosphere at the moment. There are indications that that permafrost will release methane and carbon under high emission scenarios that will accelerate Arctic amplification and drive those changes further.

All of that is creating the kind of climate change impacts that you would expect. It is causing ecosystem changes. It is causing more wildfires. It is causing human consequences in the Arctic. That is why the UK is at the forefront of understanding and studying the changes in the Arctic. The UK is fourth when it comes to the impact of polar science in the Arctic, just behind the US, Canada and Russia. We are very keen that we build up that capacity because that is the only way we will begin to understand, model and reflect on some of the changes.

Q2                Baroness Sugg: Richard, given the dramatic climate changes that Henry has just spelt out, what are the implications for the Arctic states themselves and the 4 million people who live in the Arctic?

Professor Richard Powell: Thank you for the invitation. I am Professor of Arctic Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. I am a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College as well.

Picking up on what Henry was saying, there are any number of consequences from the perspective of indigenous people. As you say, about 4 million people live within the Arctic Circle. Some people claim that if you include Alaska and the Yukon and the entire northern region, it is more like 10 million people, of whom about 400,000 to 500,000 are indigenous people. Precise definitions and how they are categorised across different states vary, but basically from the perspective of people who live in the Arctic rapid climate change disrupts traditional practices and the ability to hunt; it influences the migration patterns of animals and has consequences that can cause social instability.

For example, in traditional Inuit societies, hunting is a way of elders and youth interacting and passing on skills. The inability to hunt causes less generational transfer of knowledge, which causes cultural loss and instability. In indigenous populations there are more problems of poverty, welfare and well-being. Suicide is a serious problem in many northern indigenous communities. It has all sorts of knock-on consequences at that level.

At state level, obviously for a lot of the Arctic states, climate change ultimately creates uncertainty. There are lots of risks, which I am sure we will come on to talk about, to do with security and governance. There are also potentially economic opportunities for different states with the opening up of shipping, which again I am sure we will come on to.

One thing to remember is that for non-Arctic states the impact of this climate change—for the UK and for a state such as China—is that it internationalises the region and the issues. It is used by China to say, “This region is undergoing such rapid changes that it needs new governance and our non-Arctic participation in its governance”. It changes the dynamic, to make the region more international and a place where lots of different actors feel they need to speak about the region, whereas for much of the period—certainly since World War II—the Arctic states have very much tried to say, “These are our areas, our states and our responsibilities”. Climate change transforms it into more of an international region.

Q3                Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: My question is for you, Professor Dodds. There is quite a lot of speculation about the fact that the changes might allow the extraction of hydrocarbons and mineral reserves and increased fishing. It seems to me, at the moment at least, that this is speculation. There would be some indication as to how realistic that speculation is if you were able to tell us what is going on at the moment. Against the rather dramatic background with which our session started, exactly what impact on that already existing background would there be with an extended use for economic purposes?

Professor Klaus Dodds: Thank you very much. Again, my thanks to the committee for the invitation to address you. I am the executive dean and professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Picking up on what my colleagues have said, and focusing directly on economic activity, let me make an obvious but I think necessary first point. Economic activity in the Arctic is not new. We have had economic exploitation of various resources such as coal, sealing and whaling for decades, if not even centuries. This is not new. What I think has happened in the last 15 years is that there has been a very marked increase in thinking of climate change alongside increasing accessibility and opportunity to exploit the Arctic.

One of the cautionary notes I would offer you, right at the start, is that a warming Arctic does not necessarily lead to more activity or exploitation. One thing that is very clear when you speak, for example, to business, industry or shipping representatives is that there is often a cautionary note: “Please don’t think that a warming Arctic makes the operating environment any easier, safer or somehow cheaper. That is simply not the case.

Secondly, when we talk about the Arctic and economic activity, it is really important to recognise the diversity of the Arctic. In the case of the Russian Arctic, it is fairly straightforward to say that investment continues at a pace in and around particular parts of the Russian north such as the Yamal Peninsula, where there is intense interest in further extraction of oil and gas. In other parts of the Arctic—this is also true for the Russian Arctic—the picture of economic activity is mixed. If we think about the key sectors of oil, gas, minerals or mining, timber and fishing, not forgetting tourism as a major activity for many parts of the Arctic, it is a mixed economy. Depending on where you look in the Arctic you will find different evidence for what matters in terms of that economic activity.

Another thing is that the Arctic has undergone considerable challenges around economic activity. The pandemic has not helped in any of this. We have evidence of rising unemployment. The Russian north is affected by depopulation. As you will know, particularly if you have been following the news about the Willow project in Alaska, many of the large-scale projects can, and do, attract considerable controversy as to whether they should be happening in the first place. All of that is to say that there is a lot of activity going on. Much of it is underpinned by speculation. Reports about geological survey assessments often talk about the potential. That potential may never be realised when it comes to oil and gas.

The final thing is that some of the economic activity may yet come to fruition. We could look, as an example, at the central Arctic Ocean where we have at the moment a commercial fisheries agreement—a moratorium—but it is possible that in decades to come we might see activity that perhaps we never thought we would see 30 or 40 years ago, which is commercial fishing in one of the remotest parts of the Arctic Ocean.

Q4                Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: I have a very brief supplementary. Were that activity to increase, would it have an impact on the extent and indeed the pace of melting?

Professor Klaus Dodds: To be perfectly honest, when we talk about the Arctic there is no getting away from the fact that if we continue to extract oil and gas, wittingly or unwittingly, we are contributing to the very thing that Henry Burgess opened up with, which is concerning news about human-induced climate change.

There are environmental risks. I will mention two briefly. First, permafrost thaw will continue to have consequences for infrastructure. Much of that is pertinent to energy infrastructure, but not exclusively. Secondly, as we are seeing in the Russian Arctic, if we continue to see further evidence of intense wildfires, for example, in combination with permafrost thawing, the Arctic increasingly becomes a dangerous space in which to operate, with all the consequences that follow, as Richard Powell noted, for the peoples who live there and, as Henry Burgess noted, for the environment itself.

Q5                Lord Teverson: Professor Dodds, you mentioned hydrocarbons, and that is what we automatically think of in the Arctic. As we know, supply chains internationally are all being rethought in terms of particular minerals, rare earths and those sorts of things. Is the Arctic going to be a target for those sorts of minerals? Are they in that area, or is that something that we should not think about?

Professor Klaus Dodds: We absolutely should think about that. Again, I have two very quick examples. First of all, as a consequence of intensifying sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the full-scale invasion, we have seen yet further evidence that Russia is redirecting its efforts in oil and gas exports to other markets beyond Europe. Asia is one, but there is a suite of countries around the world, including Egypt, Turkey and Brazil.

Secondly, Sweden has recently announced that it has a potential mine for rare earths in the north of the country that could become a major site of interest and investment.[3] If we are to have a renewable energy revolution, we will need to mine in order to generate the basic materials we need for things such as wind turbines and solar energy and electrification. We are going to see more mining, not less.

Q6                Lord Stirrup: Professor Dodds, you sounded a cautionary note about assuming that a warming Arctic will automatically make things easier and safer for people in the Arctic. Could you expand on that to talk about the extent to which the Arctic can be used as a major transit route for shipping in the future?

As we have heard, ice-free in the summer does not mean no ice. To what extent will it be practical for shipping lines to send their vessels through there? When is that likely to happen? To what extent is it going to be practical? How dangerous would it be for them commercially? On the other hand, how much money would the shortening of the sea route from east to west save them? What are the risks of doing it? What is the likelihood? What are the benefits to them of doing it? What are the likely implications, particularly for us on the western end of that route?

Professor Klaus Dodds: Obviously, this is a large topic so I am going to have to come at it concisely and just offer some takeaway points that I hope will be of interest.

First, shipping activity in the Arctic is not new. That is always one of my starting propositions. We have had shipping activity in the Arctic for centuries. Some of it has been less than successful, but it would be fair to conclude that now we can talk fairly confidently about a well-established Northwest Passage that runs alongside the top of North America. We could probably more accurately talk about passages, because there is more than one.

We absolutely acknowledge that there is a Northern Sea Route. That has been a major element for the Soviet Union, and now Russia, for at least 70 or 80 years. Probably the one that has caught the eye for many people is the idea that there might be a Transpolar Route at some stage. That fits in with an early observation my colleagues made that, if the Arctic Ocean continues to lose sea ice in the way that we think is quite possible, there is an opportunity to sail across the top of the world, largely in international waters. As I say, that has caught the eye of many parties, including China.

We have three dominant maritime route pathways or routeways. The most important by far is the Northern Sea Route. That is one that both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation have routinely thought of as a priority for their country. It largely handles two things. One is transit shipping, where a ship will sail from, say, Japan or Korea, across the waters of the Russian Federation and end up in Europe or vice versa. The other, which is more predominant, is so-called destination shipping. That is shipping that is largely based around the Russian Federation because Russia has to spend a lot of time and effort sending icebreakers and other vessels to service a whole suite of Russian communities that are otherwise very remote and disconnected from land and air transport networks. In other words, there is a story to be told about how the Northern Sea Route is both an international sea route and an essential element of Russia’s domestic infrastructure.

Looking forward, President Putin has very ambitious plans for the Northern Sea Route. In the next couple of years, he would like to see something like 80 million tonnes of cargo traffic working its way through the Northern Sea Route in one form or another. We are a long way short of that total. We are closer to 34 million tonnes. That is a target that will not be reached, even with the most creative statistical manipulation. It is not going to happen. However, that shipping route has become more important to the Russian Federation, not least because it is increasingly pivoting east towards China, India and elsewhere.

As to the implications beyond that, it is interesting to note that the port of Singapore has been following the development of the Northern Sea Route with interest, and speculating about whether trade might one day start to go more across the Arctic as opposed to through the Malacca Strait and the Suez Canal. There was a flurry of interest around March 2021, when you may remember that a particular ship[4] got stuck in the Suez Canal and suddenly there was a lot of interest in alternatives.

Let me end on the point that I think it is not surprising that both the UK and Iceland, for example, have been thinking of themselves as potentially new kinds of gateways should the Transpolar Route become more popular, in particular in the next 30 or 40 years. I think it is no accident that the Government of Scotland have also expressed some interest in whether there are opportunities for the country to effectively become a trans-shipment point if the trans-Arctic route becomes more popular.

Q7                Lord Stirrup: What are the implications for China and its views on the development of this route?

Professor Klaus Dodds: China has developed an increasingly close strategic relationship with Russia. This of course, I think in part pre-dates the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We already saw that shift over the last decade. It is worth noting that a number of pipelines have recently opened that enable the transportation of gas from Russia to China. China increasingly presents itself as a near-Arctic state. China and Russia have, at this point, a friendship or a relationship that is apparently based on no limits. One of the no limits for China might be that it becomes an increasingly assertive polar power, which would include activity in the Arctic. Russia then potentially has a very difficult trade-off between needing China and, at the same time, jealously guarding the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation. I would say that we need to look carefully at how that relationship develops in the coming years.

The Chair: Presumably, that would also include investment on the basis that a lot of Russia’s plans require considerable investment, which the Russians may or may not be able to provide themselves. They certainly are not going to get it from the West now.

Professor Klaus Dodds: They are not. One of the most interesting developments around Russian oil and gas and infrastructural development has seen the growing involvement of countries from the Middle East as investors. If I were to offer you a prediction, I would say look carefully at the behaviour of countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Henry Burgess: Could I add something to that in relation to commercial operation in the form of tourism in the Arctic? The first ship to get to the North Pole was a Russian icebreaker, the “Arktika”, in 1977. Just last summer the first purpose-built tourist ship got to the Arctic, a French boat called “Le Commandant Charcot”. That boat has a higher polar classification, PC-2, and is a stronger icebreaker than many research vessels in the world.

It used to be just state actors, with their commercial and nuclear icebreakers and big research vessels, who could get to the heart of the central Arctic Ocean. We now see a position where, if you put your £30,000 on the table, you can go four times this summer to the North Pole on that kind of icebreaking vessel.

The Chair: That is very helpful; thank you. We could carry on with the economics for a long time. Moving to security and governance, Lord Soames is next.

Q8                Lord Soames of Fletching: I thank all three of you for coming today; it is a fascinating and terribly important subject. Professor, what is your assessment of the way that the Arctic Council operates, the way it does its business and its effectiveness, and Britain’s status as an observer? Is it a position that gives us authority and ability to act, or is it merely genuinely observer status?

Henry Burgess: Perhaps, if it is okay, I could start on that. The UK has been an observer to the Arctic Council since 1998. We joined with Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. The UK takes a very active role in the Arctic Council.

Like all the 38 observers and the other 13 non-Arctic states, we sit round the back of the meeting. When the Arctic Council meets, it meets in a room like this and all the observers are literally sat at the back. There are things that we can contribute, particularly through the working groups, the task forces and the science aspects. There are a lot of those. There are 130 different individual science and environmental projects in the Arctic Council, and we contribute where we can. We do not have a decision-making responsibility or power in the Arctic Council. We are very much an observer, although that is an important position and is genuinely worthwhile. 

Lord Anderson of Swansea: Does the observer status debar us from chairing working groups, for example?

Henry Burgess: Yes. There are six main Arctic Council working groups looking at the range of issues you would expect, about marine biodiversity, sustainable development and Arctic monitoring and assessment, but all of those groups have to be chaired by someone from one of the eight Arctic states.

Q9                Baroness Morris of Bolton: Thank you very much, all three of you. I am on a very steep learning curve about this part of the world. You have been fascinating, if somewhat alarming.

Henry, you talked about the UK being fourth in its impact on scientific research. I am not sure if this question is going to you all or to Professor Dodds. What role does the UK play specifically in Arctic research? What impact has there been on the suspension of scientific co-operation with Russia?

Henry Burgess: Yes. As I said, the UK is a major player in Arctic research. We are fourth when it comes to the volume of Arctic publications. What is particularly important is that we co-operate incredibly well internationally. The reason we are fourth is, to be frank, not that the UK pays enough money for us to be fourth but that UK researchers are really good at working internationally with their colleagues.

We have capable assets in the Arctic. We have a new ship, the “Sir David Attenborough”, which is capable of working in the Arctic and should go there and do that work in 2024. We have planes and a research station in Svalbard in Norway. As a whole, the Natural Environment Research Council invests a lot in Arctic research. Probably since 2010, there has been over £40 million in strategic investment in Arctic research. That is a major success for us.

There is definitely more that we can do. The pace and breadth of change in the Arctic means that it is even more important that the UK is connected to those international funding systems.

Professor Klaus Dodds: To follow up on that very nice summary of where we are, and to make an obvious but I hope important point, Professor Powell and I are both social scientists. We should not forget that part of that underpinning strength also comes from social science and humanities. We may not be on the “Sir David Attenborough” journeying up to the central Arctic Ocean, but the collective scholarship of colleagues based in the UK and then enabled by networks, often global networks, of Arctic research is also worth noting.

Lady Morris, you asked about the impact of suspension. I think there are two ways to illustrate that. The first is that one of the disastrous consequences of the breakdown of the relationship with the Russian Federation is, in essence, that we have lost access to 50% of the Arctic. We are almost back to where we were in the Cold War era. That is clearly not good when it comes to the long-term monitoring of the Arctic. Things like permafrost thaw require long-term observation.

The second thing, which is very tragic and should not be underestimated, is the impact on our Russian academic colleagues. It is never a comfortable space when you appear to be from an increasingly pariah state. That also has consequences for connections, networks and opportunities. One of the things we are seeing is not just capital flight from Russia but brain drain. Russian academics, where they can, feel that they have to go elsewhere. Indirectly, we may end up being a beneficiary, just like Alaska was many years ago when many of their distinguished permafrost scientists ended up at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It is not a particularly pleasing position, but I think it may end up, sadly, strengthening some of our capability.

Q10            Lord Teverson: Does the EU have any Horizon funding on the Arctic, or is it too theoretical for that? Is that something we might be able to re-participate in now that we have the Windsor framework?

Henry Burgess: The EU, through the Horizon programme, has been an incredibly dedicated supporter of Arctic research. It has a number of programmes that support activity in the Arctic, most recently a programme called INTERACT, which is a way of accessing different countries’ research facilities across the Arctic. That was a fantastic way of researchers from the UK and beyond working in Russia, frankly, through that Horizon-funded scheme.

The Horizon programme is also investing quite heavily in a programme called Arctic PASSION, which looks at the consistency of observations in the Arctic. One of the issues is that the area is still difficult to access and the number of people who can work there is still quite small. We do not yet have consistent observation systems, which means that our models and our understanding of the breadth and pace of change is not quite as good as it should be. The EU is investing heavily in that. The UK has benefited enormously from access to Horizon over many years, and the whole community would very much like to be in a position where that access was maintained.

Professor Richard Powell: The European Research Council, as part of Horizon, has been a really big funder of Arctic social sciences in the UK. That is researcher-led rather than Brussels-led, but it has been a really important funder. If we were not able to have access to that, it would have a decimating effect on Arctic social sciences in the UK.

Q11            Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: First, I have to declare an interest. I am an adviser to BP, and I was deputy chairman of TNK-BP, which, of course, was the Russian joint venture that had a fairly significant interest in Siberia. BP has now exited from all its Russian activities, at enormous expense.

I want to ask you about the development of the great power competition that is now going on. It is pretty significant and has major implications for the Arctic region. Would you care to talk especially about the militarisation of the Arctic and the way in which Russia has now been planting flags, where Vladimir Putin has clear objectives in terms of the strategic value of the Arctic?

Professor Richard Powell: At the end of the Cold War, there was obviously a gradual demilitarisation, but Russian remilitarisation arguably started in 2001 or maybe 2008. It has gradually built up, with the northern fleet and various new bases and new initiatives. Over the past decade, particularly over the past few years, its footprint is now clearly manifest. I think that is part of the wider interaction between China and Russia. It is partly about securing different interests, but, as Professor Dodds was saying, there are different geopolitical tensions between the states as well.

Obviously, that has had implications for NATO since at least 2014 or 2015. The Greenland-Iceland-UK gap has been seen as a really important aspect of naval defence. There have been more and more joint operations and expansion of Royal Marine capacity for northern training. The Army is doing northern training as well. The UK has been part of that response.

The other thing to bear in mind, which links back to the question about the Arctic Council, is that the whole point of the Arctic Council was that it did not do defence and security. That was deliberately kept out. It was a condition of the Americans, the Russians and I guess everyone else; they would only sign up in 1996 because it would not do defence and security. It worked because it had Sweden and Finland, and it was not just about NATO. Many of the member states had slightly different relationships. Obviously, that has changed. Finland is now in NATO and Sweden probably soon will be, assuming Turkey and Hungary agree. There are delays, but it looks as though it is going to happen. As soon as that happens, although half the Arctic is Russian, as Professor Dodds was saying, seven members of the Arctic Council are NATO. That obviously completely changes the way in which governance could proceed and what the Arctic Council will look like. Then it comes back to the question of the UK’s future as an Observer and the working groups.

A very different Arctic Council could emerge. The way in which we have all dealt with the region since the end of World War II, or since 1987, was always about the Arctic as a zone of peace—the Arctic as exception. That fitted a lot of narratives because it meant that we generally did not have to worry too much about defence spending. Now all of those things are intertwined. Some people would argue that they always were, but that is the geopolitical reality we face. There are lots of ways in which the Arctic Council could re-emerge and relationships could be reconstituted, but we have to face the reality that, as you say, that is in the background.

Q12            Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: Is there an institutional way in which that can be dealt with? If it is beyond the Arctic Council and that structure, how are we going to manage that particular aspect of the geopolitics of the region?

Professor Richard Powell: That is a good question.

Professor Klaus Dodds: A number of things are already taking shape. First, we are seeing, particularly from the United Kingdom’s point of view, the intensification of certain key relationships. Notably, the relationship with Norway has become even more important than it already was.

Secondly, we are continuing to see the kind of military-to-military co-operation that we saw among other parties, with the Netherlands as one good example, as well as other alliance members. We should not forget that we have recently had Joint Warrior and Joint Viking activities. Cold Response operated yet again last year—the largest ever—and one of our aircraft carriers, the “Prince of Wales”, went for the first time north of the Arctic Circle.

My sense is that NATO will become even more important. The strategic concept around NATO will enable a growing recognition that the Arctic is absolutely fundamental to NATO’s order of business. If we recall the past, Canada has been a little hesitant about that, but we are in a very different era. As Professor Powell noted, we have seen a fundamental transformation in the Arctic Council. Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that Sweden joins Finland as a member of NATO. That is transformative. In essence, we have had the collapse of a circumpolar vision of the Arctic, where defence and military were in some senses put to one side. President Putin has made it very clear that the militarisation of the Russian Federation’s Arctic zone will continue at a pace. 

What we might yet see is Russia and China conducting military exercises in the Arctic. It has not happened thus far, but it might be another thing to come. The reality, Lord Robertson, is that NATO is going to become the number one institution, particularly for the Arctic seven and observers like the Netherlands and the UK.

Q13            Baroness Coussins: You have talked a lot about the structure of the Arctic Council. Could you say a bit more about how effective it was as a forum for multilateral dialogue, and what the implications and risks are for the breakdown of that following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? You have talked about the NATO implications already, but perhaps there are other risks that you could mention.

I am particularly interested in the role and position of indigenous peoples. I know that they were permanent participants in the Arctic Council. Could you say something about what the key issues are for the indigenous peoples, and whether they are in alignment with the key issues and concerns of the Arctic states as a whole? What has become of the indigenous people’s secretariats since the effective suspension of the Arctic Council? Finally, is there in fact any unity of interests and concerns among the indigenous peoples, or are there tensions, disagreements and differences between the different indigenous peoples, given that most of them, I understand, fall within Russian territory but others clearly do not, so there may well be differences and tensions there?

Professor Richard Powell: There are a lot of questions there—all excellent. The first of the two great broad-brush successes of the Arctic Council was keeping it separate from defence and getting co-operation on science and the environment. The second thing, despite everything else that has been going on since the end of the Cold War, was the empowering of the indigenous groups and creating a forum through the permanent participants that allowed indigenous organisations to organise circumpolar transnationally, and air their views. Without going into the mechanics of it, they had various rights, more than observer states did. They did not have the same powers as member states did to convene discussions or put questions, so they always felt that they were second class, as it were, but compared with representations to many other international organisations it was transformative. Through that, representatives from the Inuit Circumpolar Council, for example, have gone on to advise indigenous groups.

Some of the things that got through, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, came through organisations, tactics and experiences that indigenous groups had had through the Arctic Council. It had all sorts of global impacts for indigenous people. At the other end of the scale, one of the great losses of the suspension is that achievements in those kinds of things, as well as environmental issues, are not happening in the same way. That has to be a key priority in some reconstituted future for the Arctic Council.

The six groups represent broadly different traditional territories. RAIPON is the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North group. In the past, they may have had a more contested relationship with the Russian state than some of the other groups may have had with Denmark, Canada or some of the other member states, such that at one point in the past decade or 15 years the Russian state designated them a terrorist organisation and changed the leadership. Domestic politics have been played out through some of those organisations.

Generally, from the point of view of the indigenous organisations, they have worked together because they have been able to do things by presenting issues at Arctic Council meetings. They have aired things that member states would see as domestic issues in a more international arena and that has got movement on things to do with language rights or certain land claims. There were lots of benefits from having an international governance organisation that had indigenous representations.

The other question was about how effective the council was as a forum. It was very effective. In the things that were its constituent responsibilities, it was very effective. Certainly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was all sorts of co-operation with the environmental post-Cold War military clean-up, with heavy involvement by the Russians and the Canadians, working across in quite transformative ways. That is why the immediate post-Cold War period was seen in the literature as the golden era for the Arctic, with the Arctic as a peaceful place.

Professor Klaus Dodds: Can I offer two caveats? The first is about the indigenous peoples as permanent participants. One of the concerns the permanent participants had when the Arctic Council expanded its membership community, in 2013 in particular, was that with the emergence of India and China as observer states there was a worry that Arctic states would increasingly be more and more preoccupied with managing their relationships with India, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and other observer states, and that that might be at a cost to permanent participants. One of the things about the Arctic Council worth bearing in mind is that the status of permanent participant is incredibly important in terms of the sense of legitimacy—that they are recognised.

When it comes to economic planning and national security—the big ticket items—there has always been a suspicion among permanent participants that their interests will be pushed to one side because the Arctic states will be far more interested in big trade deals and big national security questions. For example, in the Russian case it is often true that indigenous peoples feel that they are actively discriminated against or marginalised whenever questions like oil and gas come up, or shipping interests. National security is often seen as trumping any concerns one might have about indigenous peoples and their rights.

It is more complicated outside Russia because, as Professor Powell rightly noted, we have things like land claims. We have indigenous peoples with rights that should not be pushed aside in quite the same way as is often the case in the Russian Federation. The Arctic Council’s relationship with indigenous peoples has been really complicated, but I think that, fundamentally, most indigenous peoples would say that it has been incredibly important to be recognised as a permanent participant.

The Chair: That is very helpful; thank you so much. We will move on to UK policy.

Q14            Lord Teverson: I am pleased to say that earlier this year the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office published a new policy framework for the Arctic. In March 2022, the Ministry of Defence published a paper setting out the UK’s defence contributions in the High North.

In your view, have the UK Government set the right priorities for their Arctic policy, and are there sufficient resources to achieve them? One of the things that the previous one-year Arctic Select Committee of this House looked at was whether there should be an Arctic ambassador in the UK, for instance. I note that the United States has just taken that step. Is that something that is still live, or is it a dead dog?

Henry Burgess: I will start, and others might want to cover the Arctic ambassador point. We were pleased to see the new Arctic policy framework. The fact that it gives such prominence to UK skills and capacity in science—international connections in particular—is really welcome. You can overstate this, but there is the sense of a golden thread of British science from UK-based researchers right through that document. Many of the things that you have spoken about, and asked us about in this session on the role of the UK and the world, and the rights and responsibilities of indigenous communities, are recognised in the document, specifically in relation to science. That is very powerful to see.

There is a sense in which science is seen in the document as an end in itself. That is important and right, and is potentially a form of science diplomacy; the UK can exert soft power authority through its science links. That has been partly true with the Arctic Council. It is partly true of the International Arctic Science Committee, of which I am the president. It is true that science has helped to break down barriers, particularly in Russia and elsewhere.

If we are fully to achieve what the UK should rightly aim to achieve in science impact, at some point in the near future we are going to need diplomacy to return the favour to science. Science has been working very hard for diplomacy since the end of the Cold War, for its own purposes but also for diplomacy. If we are to re-establish some of those connections and look forward in a hopeful way and make some of the international links even more strongly, we will need diplomacy to begin to return the favour at some point. That is not something that the document itself can say, but from a science community perspective we would like to think about a space for that in the future.

The Chair: Would anyone like to add anything?

Professor Klaus Dodds: Let me pick up on the Arctic ambassador point directly. I think a UK Arctic ambassador is likely. It would not surprise me if such a role came to fruition fairly soon in the aftermath of those two important documents. One is obviously the FCDO document and the other of course is the Ministry of Defence paper that the question rightly alludes to.

It is also worth saying, and I welcome this in both of the documents and beyond, that there is growing recognition that the Arctic needs to be considered alongside what we used to call the northern flank, with increasing recognition of the Baltic Sea region, which is incredibly important, given the admission of Finland and likely admission of Sweden to NATO. We need to be increasingly alive to the fact that there is an arc of consideration there, and it stretches at least from the Baltic Sea to the northern flank and the high Arctic. An incredibly important element of the recent frameworks is acknowledging that we are in a more competitive and congested Arctic, and we need to be alive to that.

Henry Burgess made a very important point about science. One of the things that many people would welcome is the UK being a signatory to the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement. Clearly, once we exited the European Union, we were no longer party to that agreement. In particular, I would welcome further investment and interest in the central Arctic Ocean because that will be an area of growing concern commercially, strategically and, for example, in transportational terms.

Finally, in terms of those documents, I would try to think of the UK as a persuasive power. It is not just thinking about soft and hard power. In essence, how can we use our influence to ensure that, as far as possible, the Arctic remains a relative zone of peace and stability? After all, it is not in the interests of the Russian Federation to have a conflictual Arctic. That is a very easy way to deter foreign direct investment. Russia also has a profound interest in the Arctic remaining a relatively peaceful and stable working environment, but we need to own up to the fact, as I think the two documents do, that this is a very different Arctic from the one that we confronted in the 1990s.

The Chair: This is where we put you on the spot, and who better to do it than Lord Anderson.

Q15            Lord Anderson of Swansea: How kind. Gentlemen, this is the first session of our new inquiry. At the end we shall make recommendations to Government to enhance British interests and, hopefully, global interests. If you had to make one recommendation, what would that be?

Henry Burgess: One of the things that happened in the autumn was that UKRI[5] signed a new agreement with the Research Council of Norway, meaning that researchers in both countries could join together and apply for funds from the other country. That is a simple way for UK researchers and researchers abroad to work more actively together. Seeing more of those agreements would be a fantastic start.

Perhaps I could cheekily ask for one more thing. At the moment, we are working towards a fifth International Polar Year in 2032-33. This is an amazing once-in-a-generation opportunity to scale up the UK’s funding and commitment to polar science as a whole—Arctic and Antarctic. We are right at the beginning of it, but it is a truly international effort. It will be all the countries. It will be the United Nations. Everyone you can think of will be part of it. The ability for funding bodies and others to get behind that approach and make some of the ideas live would be really powerful.

Professor Richard Powell: I agree. If you look at the evolution of UK Arctic policy over the past 15 years or so, there has been lots of need for more communication and co-ordination between different parts of government. The advantage of the latest framework is that they actually try to do that. I still think there could be much more building of expertise, and communication between Government and the expertise in the UK. As Professor Dodds alluded to earlier, as well as doing a lot of important science and important social science, we train in our universities a lot of the people who go on to become experts in the Arctic in other parts of the world. Maybe we could try to create more opportunities for that, in concert with some of the programmes, and try to increase communication and connections [between Government and expertise].

Professor Klaus Dodds: Lots of good things have already been mentioned. I would say two, if you would indulge me. One is very specific. Given the current context, nothing would give me greater pleasure than if the UK and Ukraine had a polar agreement with one another. I would really welcome the idea that Ukrainian scientists who currently work in the Antarctic might visit the British station in Svalbard as part of good will and overall encouragement for that country to continue in the steps it has already taken to become genuinely a polar science power. For me, that would be a welcome expression of solidarity.

Secondly, I would be particularly interested to see any further efforts being made to build relationships between the UK, Germany, Japan and South Korea. All four of us are important near-Arctic nation states. We are all part of the Arctic Council observer community and we have shared interests that go way beyond science. I would like to see us working alongside, and certainly not neglecting the work that we are doing with our NATO alliance partners, to consolidate a coalition of the willing and able in Arctic matters.

The Chair: Does anyone have any follow-ups?

Q16            Lord Soames of Fletching: From the more general to the particular, is there any particular aspect of the science you study, and that our brilliant Arctic scientists deal with, that we are not doing that we should be doing?

Henry Burgess: There is definitely more that we can do, as Klaus said, in the central Arctic Ocean. Our new ship, the “Sir David Attenborough”, is an incredible platform, with its moon pool and its autonomous and remotely operated vehicles. There is definitely capacity for us to begin to think about doing more in the central Arctic Ocean, which is an almost unknown part of the ocean. In 20 or 30 years’ time, it will open up in the summer.

The last time we had a new ocean that close to us was when the North Sea opened up 10,000 or 20,000 years ago. It is that scale of narrative that we are thinking about. Deploying some of the assets in the right place at the right time with international partners would be fantastic. It would drive enormous benefit and give us not just science knowledge but genuinely strategic intelligence about what is happening. Information about the ice, the weather, the species and the condition of the water is, as you know, strategic intelligence because it is so close to us. It is not just science information.

Q17            Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: One of the things that used to be unmentionable in military and strategic terms was undersea cables, but they have now become common currency as we see the vulnerability of our communications network. Are there major implications now in opening up the Arctic to this particular issue?

Henry Burgess: Very much so. You literally cannot go to an Arctic conference these days without there being firms talking about the cables that they are planning on laying across the Arctic and round the sides. It is a very current issue. Svalbard in Norway is a very important location for satellite control and maintenance. There is a fibre-optic cable that links Svalbard with the Norway mainland. One of the cables was cut some time ago.

It is a very important strategic issue for science as well. One of the things that is being sold to the community, as the chance of these cables going over the top is put forward, is the ability to have nodes and offshoots for science equipment as well as their just carrying data and comms information. Yes, it is very current in the Arctic.

Q18            The Chair: I have a very specific question. We have assumed that there will be greater economic activity, whether it is tourism or mining. Does the lack of permafrost actually make economic activity more difficult?

Professor Klaus Dodds: What has been interesting is that permafrost thawing, by and large, carries with it consequences that are not good for infrastructure. That includes buildings, roads, pipelines and other kinds of things that, if they go wrong, carry both expense and environmental risk.

It would be rare to find somebody advocating more permafrost thaw as necessarily a good thing. However, again just for historical context, there was quite an appetite in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s for deliberately thawing permafrost, with the thought that it was all part of the environmental transformation and therefore would make Russia a more agriculturally productive country. That view has moved on somewhat. By and large, it is now widely recognised, including by the US military, which has had to deal with the consequences of permafrost thaw, that that carries unwelcome expense.

It comes back to where we started. There are very few positives from ongoing Arctic warming. You may think, for example, that less sea ice makes the Arctic Ocean more accessible. That is not quite as straightforward as it might appear. It actually makes it a more unpredictable and potentially challenging environment to work in. We have seen a profound cultural shift from actively wanting to change the Arctic environment in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to actually being rather mindful of what an unwanted changing Arctic environment brings with it.

The Chair: Thank you so much for all your very welcome knowledge. As Lord Anderson said, this is our first evidence session. It has been a very good start. I am sure we will be in touch with you again. I remind you that we will send you a transcript. You have the ability to correct it if we have made a mistake. Thank you so much for coming and giving us your time. It is very much appreciated. I now close the public session. Thank you very much.

[1] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019): [accessed 9 May 2023]

[2] Arctic Council, Arctic Climate Change Update 2021: Key trends and impacts (20 May 2021): [accessed 9 May 2023]

[3] Post-meeting clarification from Professor Dodds: This refers to the Per Geijer deposit in   Kiruna, northern Sweden.

[4] The Ever Given

[5] UK Research and Innovation